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How to Handle Temper Tantrums: Coaching Kids to Calm Down

by Sara Bean, M.Ed.
How to Handle Temper Tantrums: Coaching Kids to Calm Down

When I answered the phone, I heard the shrieks immediately. It was obvious that a child was having a nuclear meltdown on the other end of the line and the mother, exhausted and frantic, was calling the Parental Support Line for help. As the mother tried to explain what was going on, I struggled to hear her over the commotion.  “We’ve been dealing with this for over an hour now. When is he going to stop?” she asked. These kinds of calls are not at all uncommon on the Parental Support Line. I talk to parents every day who have kids who come completely unglued at the drop of a hat; these parents  struggle to cope with the resulting chaos. Believe it or not, there are ways to help eliminate tantrums from your daily life. It starts with understanding the meltdown.

Related: Does your child throw tantrums or act out to get what he or she wants?

Inside the Meltdown

The way kids think really has a lot to do with why they melt down—and why it’s so hard for them to calm down. Kids use a lot of negative self-talk and faulty thinking. Negative self-talk includes fantasies about power. Kids will think, “I’ll show her who’s boss,” or “This will teach her to tell me what to do.” They think about how unfair things are, how mean they think you are, and how little you understand them, to name a few examples. These flawed thoughts and mental images of being in control fuel their rage.  It’s important to realize that kids, especially pre-teens, might not be very aware of their mental processes, though, and how these impact their behavior. What’s more, once the negative self-talk starts it’s very hard for them to stop or change it—which is part of what it takes for them to calm down.  (I’ll be telling you how to do that in a minute.)

It’s also important to understand that if you’ve ever given in to your child during a meltdown, then meltdowns take on a purpose—to wear you down so that you’ll give in again. It’s hard to get kids to calm down from a tantrum if a tantrum has had a positive payoff, even once in the past. There’s nothing appealing to your child about calming down when they can gain control by appearing to lose it. (This is the slot machine effect we’ve talked about before—kids will keep pulling the lever over and over until they hit the jackpot. )

Related: Learn how kids “thinking errors” are at the root of inappropriate behavior.

Calming Down: From Pre-schoolers to Teens

Unfortunately, as hard as it is, sometimes we simply have to step back and let kids physically wear themselves out (as long as they are not endangering themselves or anyone else). There are also some “best practices” that can help you teach your child to manage his emotions more effectively, too.

The best way to handle a child in all-out meltdown mode varies a little bit by age and stage.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers: Kids under five will need you to redirect them to a specific activity that can help them calm down. You might say, “I can see you’re really upset. I wish I could help you calm down right now. Here, why don’t you draw a picture that shows me how mad you are?” This is just a suggestion—you can try any activity you think will be soothing to your child or help them use their energy in a more positive way. With kids in this age range, walking away from them during a tantrum can cause anxiety rather than calm, so it’s often best to stay within eyesight and direct your own attention to another activity until your child is calm. They will need you to role model how to calm down for them, so minimize your interaction until you’re both calm. If you can, try to role model calm activities by taking deep breaths, flipping through a magazine, or tidying up, for example. I understand that it isn’t always possible to keep your cool when your child is in full-blown tantrum mode, but it is helpful to show him that you’re not going to become unglued by his actions—and that you’re not afraid of him or his anger. Don’t give the tantrum more power than it deserves, or you will find your child using anger more and more to get what he wants.

Elementary-aged kids: With kids in this age range, it works well to come up with a “Calm-down Plan” ahead of time. Talk with your child and let him know it’s okay to be angry, but it’s important to deal with anger in a positive way, rather than screaming, throwing things, or name-calling. Keep the plan simple—one to two steps max—and role-play the plan to help your child practice. Some kids find it helpful to go to their room, listen to music, do something creative, punch a pillow, or do something active outside. The next time you notice your child is getting upset, remind him to do the activity you planned and then disengage by walking away. Take some time and space to yourself until he calms down. This might mean that you ride out the storm, so to speak, in a room with a locked door and ignore the screaming and pounding on the other side.  It might also be very helpful for you to set it up ahead of time so that your child can earn an incentive when he tries to calm himself down, which helps to motivate him to follow your instructions even in the heat of the moment.

Related: Need help calming down when your child is pushing your buttons?

Teens and young adults: Again, it helps to problem-solve and come up with a plan in advance, or even a menu of options they can use to calm down. In the heat of the moment, remind your child to follow the plan and walk away, staying disengaged until you are both calm. For teens, it might help for them to exercise, go for a walk, call a friend to vent, read, or write in a journal. Rewards or consequences can be effective to motivate your child to follow the plan, but it’s not effective to provide either when the storm is raging.  If it’s safe, you can leave the house during an outburst to allow you both some time and space to calm down. Some parents will call us from their locked car in the driveway, or they’ll go drive around the block or run some errands. If your child acts out by breaking something while you’re gone, for example, give her consequences for her actions when you get home.

Related: How to give your child consequences that will work to change her behavior.

5 Tips to Help Your Child Calm Down

Here are some tips and techniques that are helpful for all ages and stages.

Don’t try to control kids when they’re angry: Rather than trying to get your child to her room, or trying to make her stop screaming and throwing things, focus on controlling yourself. Usually when you try to control another human being, they just push back even harder against you. You can’t ultimately make your child stop screaming or throwing things, and we don’t recommend that you try. It’s best to focus on being a positive role model, staying calm, and refraining from trying to overpower them. When you accept that your child will either choose to keep going or choose to try the Calm-down Plan, the dynamic of the situation changes for the better.

Avoid reasoning and deep conversations: Many parents will make the well-intended mistake of trying to reason with their child and “talk them out of the meltdown.” They think, “If I can just get him to understand, maybe he’ll stop.” Trying to reason with your child, attempting to get him to understand your perspective, or even talking about why he’s so angry, just like with adults, is probably not going to be productive.  It’s much more effective to talk later when everyone is calm.

Related: How to have problem-solving conversations with your child that will teach him how to behave differently next time he’s angry.

Respect your child’s perspective: When you are coaching your child to calm down in the heat of the moment, try your best to use a calm, quiet tone and language that’s as non-judgmental as possible. For example, let’s say your child is freaking out about not having anything to wear to school, and her tantrum is escalating into a full-blown rage.  It’s not going to be helpful to say, “That’s not important,” or “There’s no reason to be mad.” The truth is, it is important to your child in that moment and it s a reason to be angry in her eyes. It matters to her and if you minimize it too much, you might end up escalating the situation even more. Think of it this way: if you’re upset about something and your spouse, a colleague or neighbor says, “It’s not important. Why are you so upset?”—how would you feel?

Accept trial and error: You might need to experiment with different language or techniques to find what works best for your child when he’s angry. Some kids respond well to non-verbal cues like hand-signals, while older kids might find that embarrassing. Some kids get angrier if you tell them to take a time-out, but might respond well when you say it’s time for you both to take a break or cool off. If certain words or phrases seem to fan the flames, take note and try some different words next time.

Repeat, repeat, repeat:  This process of problem solving, coaching, and then walking away is something that most parents will need to do over and over again. Remember that kids need repetition in order to learn new ways of managing difficult situations and emotions.  Effective parenting—and the ability for your child to calm down—just like anything else, takes practice.

Anger can build up pretty gradually or come to a peak rather quickly, but it usually takes a while for feelings of anger to fade away. As you work with your child on better coping skills, over time you might see them begin to calm down more quickly. In the meantime, though, you might see a lower-level anger hanging around after the peak. We recommend that you ignore it and the door-slamming, stomping, grumbling, and scowling that come along with it. We don’t want to give these lesser behaviors a lot of power or re-escalate the situation. Remember that everyone deals with anger in a different way and some people recover from it more promptly than others. Just because you are ready to move on doesn’t mean your child should be, too. When you use the tools and suggestions provided here and consistently practice limiting your interaction with your child during a meltdown, the meltdowns should gradually get shorter in length and less frequent over time.

 


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Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.

READER'S COMMENTS

The article couldn't of been better timing for me. I have a 16 year old teenage daughter which is out of control. She wanted to take the car to McDonalds does not have a license just a permit. Has to be with an adult or someone that is 21. Once I approached her that I would even drive her to pickup the 21 year old, she was yelling and screaming, so that tells me she was going to take the car on her own, she threw a tantrum, threw my keys and phone out of the car and grabbing my arm. So we called the Police which were great, however the fear that I have did not even shed a tear! Really at my wits end. Any suggestions??

Comment By : Lisa M

I would talk to you about her feelings and the excitement she has about driving the car but explain that it would only take one mistake , her driving unlawfully and gets caught , she will not be driving until she is 18 or 21, so has much has she wants to drive -hold on and wait it will come quickly and when you get your license, then you can drive up to Mcdonalds. Also with a car comes maturity and responsibility and if you can't control your anger , then getting your drivers license might not be in your near future. Tell her you know she can be that trustworthy and mature adult and why not act that way now and maybe your get more priveleges later.

Comment By : lpannette

* To “Lisa M.”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Calling the police was a good way to address her behavior in the moment. It sounds like your daughter was out of control. Responding as you did helped to show your daughter you are going to take her behavior seriously and behaving in an out of control manner has consequences. I hear how distressing your daughter’s apparent lack of reaction was for you. Even if she may be trying to minimize her behavior by not showing a strong reaction, try not to give her response or apparent lack thereof much attention. You can’t control how she responds. What is going to be most effective from this point is focusing on helping your daughter develop better ways of dealing with her problems. As upsetting as her behavior is, it’s not about you but about your daughter having poor problem-solving skills. A great article that explains how to start helping your daughter develop these skills is The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems". Good luck to you and your daughter as you work through this challenging issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

trying to remain calm only exacerbates my 9yo daughter, she can go on whining, moaning crying, shouting punching things for hours... when I lose it and start screaming is when she starts to calm down. I have tried everything and have been able to go for up to 4 hours without losing my "cool". but when I don't have 4 hours to wait for her, I have to get to work, or we're expected at a wedding; what should I do? I'm very unhappy most days and depressed at what kind of mother i fell like i am becoming because of her. I was in a very bad marriage wher my husband thought it was funny to watch the little girl talk back to her mom, for her to hit her mom and refuse to do as told. He thought it was funny how upset I would get. He left last june and is still in her life, but I have been working so hard to recharge my relationship with her and make it more "normal". It is terrible, I hate how things are and am depressed most days. I have such anxiety even just going to wake her up in the morning.

Comment By : at wits\' end with 1

I read this with great interest but my problem is that my 6 year old ODD child's issues seem greatest when she is trying to be in her 9 year old sister's physical space, literally poking her, pinching her, sitting on her, invading her room, etc. When I try to separate them verbally, she sneers at me, laughs or shouts "No!" and it quickly turns into a chase scene. If I suggest she go somewhere else to calm down, and try to disengage, she continues to taunt her sister who pleads with me to "get her off of me!!" and "Mama, don't you care? Get her out of my room!" I try to stay calm, but there seems no other way than to physically try to remove her, which is never pretty, and then she will not stay in her room. If I can get her there, and lock the door,(Which I hate doing) she then turns her music on loudly, and begins to calm down. She will eventually call to me "Mama I'm ready to be nice!" It is an exhausting process and emotionally upsetting to all of us, and happens daily. I can sometimes get her engaged in helping me with cooking or cleaning - she loves to vaccuum or cut veggies, which is helpful, but only until the next episode. When one on one with me, we can usually work through most issues, but when sister is present, or friends are playing in the yard, her behavior becomes very uncontrollable. I am trying to stay calm, but frankly, it's not always working....I appreciate your help always. thank you.

Comment By : Kate

* Hi Kate. This is a truly difficult situation. It’s hard to try to balance your older daughter’s expectations about what you should do with what you believe to be most effective. We would recommend working with your older daughter on how to be empowered early on in her younger sister’s escalation process and talk about what she can do to put some space between the two of them before things get out of control. Teach your older daughter to react to her sister as minimally as possible because we don’t want to give your younger daughter any more power than she is already getting through this behavior. When you intervene, perhaps it would work better to focus on getting your older daughter out of the situation, as unfair as that might be. We can have the younger daughter make an amends to her later. Engage as little as possible with your younger one during these times—coach her to do what you expect, coach the older one to respond the way you expect, and let them make their choices. If your older girl refuses to move than she is essentially choosing to let her sister pester her. We don’t recommend trying to physically intervene (unless there is a significant safety issue) or chase your child because that just reinforces the behavior. Overall, more problem solving with both girls, holding both girls accountable for following your instructions, and giving consequences to your younger daughter for her behavior are all going to be very important. An example of a consequence to use would putting her TV privileges on hold until she does a chore for her sister and writes an apology that says what she will do differently next time. Here are some articles for more information: Siblings at War in Your Home (Declare a Ceasefire Now) & The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” We know this is hard and we wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘at wits’ end with 1’: It’s so incredibly challenging when kids’ tantrums will go on for hours at a time. Four hours is a long time for you to go without “losing your cool” so you must be doing something that is working to help yourself stay calm—great job. In addition to following the suggestions in the article, I also encourage you to work on staying disengaged from your daughter longer past that four hour mark where things start to unravel. Remember that your losing your cool might be exactly what your daughter is looking for in this type of situation. Additionally, it sounds like it would be really helpful for you to get some local support to help you and your daughter as you continue to reform your relationship. You two have been through some really tough issues and it takes time to work through them, and anxiety and depression can sometimes get in the way of change. For now, though, there may be times when your daughter’s tantrums cause you to miss some events or be late for work. We certainly don’t want that, but at the same time it’s not going to be effective for you to try to make her stop tantrumming. If possible, ask a friend or relative to come stay with your daughter while you go to work or an event. Later you can problem solve and restrict a privilege until your daughter makes an amends for the event you missed or the work time you missed. Here are some articles for more information: Child Rage: Explosive Anger in Kids and Teens & "Parents Aren't the Problem—They're the Solution." We wish you luck as you continue to work through this-- it isn’t easy. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

"At wits end" w one Our single daughter does the same things. We also end up yelling, she runs crying to her room which in turn she works off the energy she has built up. And will usually calmly come out and say ok I'm ready. We nip it in the bud quickly. But the truth is its not the best way to handle it. Your daughter is probably feeling your depression. My ex also let our daughter treat me badly, it's taken 3 years and her step father to change it. You have to start finding something to make YOU happy. Fill up your tanks some how. I ignored this advice for a long time thinking I wasn't spending enough time with my child. But I've found quality over quantity still rules. Happy Parent, Happy Child. And some family councelling with someone who is specialized maybe in behavioral therapys. She stuck in her ways but you can unstick them. And I seriously commend you on your patience!! Help You first! Things will fall into place when You start to feel better. If you don't have the money look for free or reduced cost clinics in your area. And know there are other parents out there who don't like their kids sometimes and it's ok in small doses.

Comment By : SFMorris

My 4 yr old grandson responds with rage at anything. We never know what will set him off. For example, we said we were going to watch the parade at Disneyland. He screamed he didn't want to watch the parade, then he began hitting his mother. Two days before we stopped at my husband''s office to pick up something. He said he did not want to go inside with Pop-pop. As soon as my husband was out of sight, he said we wanted to go inside; his mother said it was too late, Pop-pop was gone, he immediately started screaming, throwing his arms, and kicking the back of my car seat. Every day he has a major meltdown with screaming, kicking, and frequently hitting his mother. His mother insists she doesn't have any behavior problems with him at home alone, but she says his day care teachers talk to her about behavior problems and we know his other grandparents have experienced extreme behavior problems. He's very intelligent. He has a very good memory--almost errie how he can momorize things. Excellent vocabulary. But his maturity level in some areas is more like a 2 yr old. He's very "me" centered and still very "mine" focused. Like a 2 yr old, he gets very upset if you use or eat anything that's "his.". I'm starting to think he may be mildly autistic. He's social, but at times he won't connect, especially when he's fixated on some. At times we've put our hands on in arms, called him by name, asked him to look at us, but he won't make eye contact, and we won't hear or comprehend a word we say. My husband thinks he's faking it, but I'm not so sure. He lies. Very disturbing. It's not possible to give this child a piece of paper and ask him to draw his feelings. When this child goes, he's beyond any reason. We try to anticipate situations that will trigger a meltdown and help him prepare mentally in advance, but who can know saying we're going to watch a Disney parade is going to trigger a violent outburst in a 4 yr old? His mother is reluctant to seek help, but we think the child needs to be checked out by a doctor. He has a year before he starts school, but we don't think he will adjust well in school with these behaviors.

Comment By : worried grandmother.

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